Natalie Kalmus

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Natalie Kalmus

Natalie Kalmus (1883-1965) played a key role in the development and promotion of the Technicolor film process.

Kalmus was born Natalie Mabelle Dunfee in 1883 (some sources say 1878 or 1892) in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of George Kayser Dunfee and his wife. As a child, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where she spent her youth. Kalmus sometimes worked as a model, but was primarily interested in art, which she studied at Stetson University in Deland, Florida.

Married Herbert Kalmus

On July 23, 1902, Kalmus married Herbert T. Kalmus, the first marriage for both. She continued to pursue her studies in art at the Boston School of Art and Boston's Curry School of Expressionism while her husband obtained his undergraduate degree. He graduated in 1904 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After his graduation, the couple moved to San Francisco where Herbert Kalmus owned part of the University School and served as principal. He sold out his interest in 1906.

In 1905, the couple went to Europe, primarily living in Berlin, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland. Herbert Kalmus had a fellowship from MIT to earn his Ph.D. Natalie Kalmus pursued her studies in art at the University of Zurich. When the couple returned to the United States in 1906, they moved back to Boston.

Beginnings of Technicolor Process

Upon their return, Herbert Kalmus taught physics and conducted research at MIT through the early 1910s, then at Queens University in Ontario, Canada. During their years in Canada, Kalmus continued to study art, while her husband directed a government lab, doing research in electrochemistry and metallurgy. During this time period, Herbert Kalmus began experimenting with the creation of color film. At the time, all movies were black and white. Occasionally color would appear in films, but primarily as a tint placed by hand on the film. This process was very expensive and labor intensive.

In 1912, Herbert Kalmus developed an early version of Technicolor. He formed the Technicolor Company, which was incorporated as the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation in 1915. Kalmus served on the governing board of the company. Technicolor's first lab was a railway car in Boston. This early process was imperfect, involving two colors that were difficult to project. Because of her looks and coloring, Kalmus was often used as a scientific model to access the on-going success of the process. Despite problems, Herbert Kalmus used the primitive Technicolor process in the production of his movie, The Gulf Between (1917), which his wife also worked on. They hoped that this film would attract the growing film industry's attention, but the problems proved too numerous and the cost too prohibitive.

A Secret Divorce

While continuing to pursue their common dream of a workable Technicolor process that could be sold to Hollywood, the Kalmus's marriage was falling apart. The couple secretly divorced in 1921, though they continued to work on the development of Technicolor together. There were continued problems with funding and with trying to convince Hollywood executives that Technicolor was both financially feasible and workable.

Kalmus and her husband made another significant film with their refined two-color process, Toll of the Sea (1922). This film was co-produced by Joseph M. Scheneck and was one of the only full-length color movies using this early version of the Technicolor process to make money in the 1920s. While problems with projection remained, the relative success of Toll of the Sea convinced Hollywood that using Technicolor had possibilities. Technicolor began being used for certain sequences in some Hollywood films, though not whole pictures. While Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) used the two color process and made money, most Technicolor films still lost money.

In 1927, the Kalmuses and Technicolor operations moved to Hollywood, where more funding was available. In the late 1920s, Herbert Kalmus devised a three-color process that solved many of the problems of two-color Technicolor. He continued to perfect the three-color process through the early 1930s, when he came up with a special camera that photographed three colors on three separate film strips.

Worked as Color Expert

Kalmus worked tirelessly to sell the technology to Hollywood executives. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, early three-color Technicolor was primarily used in animated and live action shorts. As Technicolor started to catch on, Kalmus promoted herself as a top color expert for Technicolor productions beginning in 1928. In all productions using Technicolor, she was in charge of color in sets, clothing, and make-up, and related issues of lighting and editing. Kalmus also did some cinematography on early Technicolor pictures, making her the first woman cinematographer to work in color. In addition, Kalmus trained others in the use of Technicolor, including those in foreign countries.

When the Technicolor three-color process became perfected in the early 1930s and was regularly used in features, Kalmus took credit as "color consultant" on all Technicolor films. She controlled how the color looked and was used, and only she was so credited through the late 1940s.

The Technicolor process required considerable expertise to use. Kalmus wanted to ensure Hollywood's continued interest in this somewhat intimidating process, and devised the Technicolor Advisory Service in 1932. This package deal was sold at a flat rate to production companies. In addition to Kalmus's color consulting services, the package included the equipment, specially trained cameramen, art directors, make-up artists, and costume, set, and prop designers, and lab processing. Kalmus helped productions use color in appropriate, simple ways that added texture to the films instead of overwhelming them. She promoted the language of color and the art of modifying it. According to Fred E. Basten, in his book Glorious Techni-color, Kalmus said "The principles of color, tone, and composition make a painting a fine art. The same principles will make a colored motion picture a work of art."

The first full-length Technicolor feature using the three-color process was Becky Sharp (1935). Kalmus went on to consult on some of the greatest movies produced in Hollywood, including The Wizard of Oz (1936) and Gone with the Wind (1939). She helped negotiate a seven-year contract with Walt Disney for use of Technicolor in animation. In addition, Kalmus traveled extensively to consult on Technicolor projects in other countries, including England for Wings of the Morning (1936). She handled contractual arrangements between the movie studios and Technicolor. Kalmus was well paid for her demanding work, making a salary in the mid-$60,000 range. As studios and filmmakers became increasingly familiar with the Technicolor process, Kalmus's work as a consultant was sometimes resented as an intrusion. On occasion she was sent away from the set. By the late 1940s, this situation reached a climax as the patent on Technicolor expired in 1948. In that year, her name was struck from association with Technicolor, perhaps as a result of a pending lawsuit.

A Bitter Struggle

In 1948 Natalie Kalmus filed a lawsuit against her former husband, claiming half of his assets, when it seemed likely that he was about to re-marry. Both Natalie and Herbert Kalmus had continued to let others think they were still married and shared homes in California and Massachusetts. In the suit, she pointed to their living situation as well as the fact that she had played a significant role in the Technicolor business as proof for her case. The judge ruled against her, upholding the 1921 divorce. After she moved back to Massachusetts in 1948, she tried to get the 1921 divorce vacated, but again was denied. She did receive some compensation in an annual pension of $11,000 and $7500 in alimony per year. Kalmus already held a significant amount of Technicolor stock. Herbert Kalmus did re-marry and controlled Technicolor until his retirement in 1959.

After Kalmus returned to Massachusetts, she was essentially retired. The expiration of Technicolor's patent meant that the company's monopoly lasted only until 1950. Technicolor was gradually supplanted by a Kodak color stock that was introduced in 1950. The Kodak stock was cheaper and easier to use. Though Technicolor gradually went out of vogue, Kalmus's contributions ensured that color films came to dominate the industry. She died on November 15, 1965, in Boston. In her obituary in the New York Times, Kalmus was quoted as having said that in her Technicolor work, she was "playing ringmaster to the rainbow."


Acker, Ally, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, Continuum, 1991.

American National Biography: Volume 12, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Basten, Fred E., Glorious Technicolor: The Movies' Magic Rainbow, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1980.

The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, edited by John S. Bowman, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dictionary of American Biography: Supplement Seven, 1961-1965, edited by John A. Garraty, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.

Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper Perennial, 1998.


Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1998.

New York Times, November 18, 1965.

Washington Times, December 6, 1998.


"Natalie Kalmus: The Selling of Color," The Film 100, (February 9, 2001).

"Red, Green and Blue: Short history of AMPS' Sustaining Member-Technicolor," Technicolor History, (February 9, 2001). □